If, for some reason, you only need one dress shirt in your closet, let it be the white dress shirt. It’s the most versatile shirt you will ever own, appropriate for business, dress or casual. The right white dress shirt looks impeccable under a suit, fantastic under a sweater or handsome as hell with just a pair of jeans. Some would even argue that the right dress shirt could even be worn with a dinner jacket. With the exception of two gingham shirts, I’m not a real pattern or stripe kind of guy when it comes to shirts. And of all my dress shirts, about 85% of them are plain white.
In terms of acquiring a great white dress shirt, men often make the mistake of thinking that “a white shirt is a white shirt,” but there are several options to consider. First consideration is the fabric, which is very simple: cotton. And none of those “no-iron”/”wrinkle-free” shirts, for which the cotton is treated with formaldehyde, producing an itchy, non-breathing, chemically-altered version of cotton. There is an aggressive epidemic among shirt makers to push these bastardized “no-iron” cotton dress shirts, even ye olde Brooks Brothers. Ignore them and demand 100% regular cotton only.
The next thing to consider is the weave of the cotton. When I was a schoolboy, we wore oxford shirts, made with a coarse, durable weave of heavy cotton. Oxford is technically casual and inappropriate for dress or business. But a casual, un-ironed, oxford button-down is the ultimate weekend shirt. My personal go-to weaves for dress shirts are either poplin or pinpoint oxford. Poplin is a tightly-woven plain weave with a very fine hand. Though it’s susceptible to wrinkling, a fresh white poplin dress shirt is like sliding into crisp bed sheets. It’s the choice for Fortune 500 types. Pinpoint oxford is almost a cross between the two aforementioned weaves – dressier than oxford but not as fancy as poplin – and a great option for many men.
The right collar is another important consideration. My personal choice is the semi-spread collar, which is a cross between the standard point collar and the spread collar. One could belabor that standard point collars should be worn by round-faced men and spread collars are for men with more angular faces. Knock yourself out. The semi-spread strikes the perfect, bullet-proof balance that goes with everything on anyone. However popular, the button-down collar is technically for casual only, though J.F.K.’s years at Choate and Princeton influenced his button-down preference all the way into the White House, which, in turn, influenced many American men. Unless your name is Thom Browne, Nick Wooster, Jack Kennedy, or any other public notable whose signature look is the button-down collar, best keep the button-down out of the boardroom, the newsroom, the courtroom and the Four Seasons dining room. (But you can definitely get away with it in the Champagne Room.)
The two most common cuffs are barrel cuffs (a.k.a. “button cuffs”) and French cuffs. My preference is the latter. Cufflinks are one of the few forms of man bling I can tolerate, and I proudly own several pairs passed down from my grandfather. And instead of making a weird statement with a “conversation” tie, a cufflink is a great vehicle for subtle and elegant self-expression. A half an inch of French cuff also happens to look fantastic peeking out of the sleeve of a jacket. But they’re not for everyone. In a piece I wrote about the streamlined dress code of busy and powerful men, I posited that French cuffs might be too fussy for many over-scheduled men of importance. Barrel cuffs are easy, basic and perfectly acceptable, especially for busy men who like to roll up their sleeves at work.
Finally, one must consider fit. For those possessing a slim, moderate or athletic build, the time is nigh to evolve out of the boxy, blousy “classic” fit that billows over the belt like an open parachute. The way to go is with a shirt that fits your form while still enabling movement. Thankfully, most respectable shirt makers offer slim or trim fit shirts, with some going even further with extra slim offerings. For the larger man, the classic fit should do it. Fortunately, we now have more affordable custom options available for the perfect-fitting shirt. And there is also the refined finishing touch of tailoring, courtesy of your trusted local.
If I had to strip my wardrobe down to, say, five indispensable essentials, my white dress shirts would definitely make the list, right along with my navy suit, my wingtips, my black knit tie and my Levi’s 501s. And if fabric dye were eradicated from the planet tomorrow, I’d be perfectly content. All hail the great white dress shirt.